Archive for Saturday, February 23, 2002

Flurry of protests stirs memories of Cold War

February 23, 2002


— The Gold War is stirring up memories of the Cold War. An Olympics that began with countries marching together in harmony is sputtering to an end with Russia seething, South Korea unhappy and the United States wondering what the fuss is all about.

Olympic controversy escalated to a new level Friday, with Russia demanding a gold medal for figure skater Irina Slutskaya and warning that its hockey players had better be treated fairly.

Later in the day, the Russians backed off threats to leave the games after receiving assurances from top Olympic officials that they understood their concerns.

"We will stay at the games," said Guennadi Shvets, a Russian delegation spokesman. "Everybody understood we had to stay."

International Olympic Committee director general Francois Carrard said Russian and Korean concerns would be presented to the IOC executive board today, but that any action would be taken after the Olympics.

"We do not expect any changes in the results," Carrard said.

Russian indignation had spread all the way to the Kremlin, where President Vladimir Putin suggested there was a reason Americans were doing so well in the games  they had the judges on their side.

"North American athletes receive a clear advantage," Putin said.

Though Russian officials were somewhat placated by the IOC, the country's hockey coach was fuming after Russia lost 3-2 to the United States in a semifinal hockey game.

"There's not much you can do about it right now," said coach Slava Festisov. "An agreement's been signed that is designed to have a final between Canada and the USA. You have this final, you have NHL referees. ... They live here and they know the North American players."

South Korea was also upset over a referee's ruling that cost one of its speedskaters a gold medal that went to America's Apolo Anton Ohno. The Koreans, though, backed off earlier threats to boycott the closing ceremony and file a lawsuit over the ruling.

"The IOC should have more control as far as the Olympic Games are concerned," said Kim Un-yong, IOC member from South Korea. "This hurts the IOC, it hurts the Olympic Games."

It was the Russians who had the most complaints, and they weren't hesitant to voice them loudly. If nothing else, they figured they have precedent on their side.

The Canadians used the same tactic to get their pairs figure skating team a duplicate unprecedented gold medal.

"Canadian pairs skaters were awarded their gold medals. Now that subjective judging harmed us, we want the same for Slutskaya," said Viktor Mamotov, head of the Russian delegation in Salt Lake City.

The International Skating Union denied the protest.

The pairs skating scandal, which clouded the Russian gold, was different, simply because of what happened on the ice.

Jamie Sale and David Pelletier skated an error-free program to stake their claim to gold. Slutskaya didn't, though she still appeared shocked when the gold medal went to America's Sarah Hughes.

"You couldn't beat that program last night without being perfect and Irina wasn't," said Hughes' coach, Robin Wagner

The judges who scored the figure skating final didn't stray far from the Cold War days when loyalties were divided East against West. Slutskaya got her highest marks from judges from Russia, Slovakia and Bulgaria, while the Canadian and American judges helped Hughes win.

It wasn't just the Russians' protests that had Olympic officials scurrying to pacify them with condolences and promises that they would be treated fairly. It was the tone that was surprising.

Though Putin later said the team would stay, the Russians first threatened to pull out of the games and said they also might not attend the Summer Olympics in Athens two years from now.

"Without Russia, the Olympic Games will be lost," said Vitaly Smirnov, an IOC vice president from Russia.

Olympic officials had hoped that these games  which were born in a bidding scandal  would come quietly to a close with athletes basking in the glory of their achievements. They thought the pairs skating scandal was behind them.

But Slutskaya had barely left the ice Thursday night when the Russians began making plans to protest the decision.

The vote to give Hughes the gold came on a day when a Russian cross-country skiing favorite was disqualified following a blood test, and the Russians alleged that Olympic hockey officials were biased against them.

Some of the complaints may have been borne of frustration. Through Friday, Russia  a traditional winter sports power  was in fifth place in the overall medal standings with 14 medals.

At the same time, the United States was enjoying its best Olympics ever by far, with 30 medals.

Top Olympic officials met with the Russian delegation, with IOC president Jacques Rogge sending Putin a letter assuring him that the games were fair and his nation's anger understood.

In Russia, though, the words rang hollow.

State-controlled ORT television had planned live coverage of Thursday's cross-country race, but after Larissa Lazutina was disqualified, the station cut the broadcast off in midrace in protest.

Renowned Russian film director Nikita Mikhalkov told the network that this year's Olympics were "a continuation of the Cold War."

"Perhaps it is caused by fear among the American people after the horrible day of Sept. 11 or fear that we (Russians) now have hope of climbing out of the hole we have fallen into and could be dangerous, so they have to humiliate us," he said.

At least one casual Hughes' fan in New York said it was too much being made out of too little.

"That's just sour grapes," said Dan Tomaselli, a high school music teacher in Great Neck, N.Y.

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